Yes – let’s get that out of the way from the start. When presented with two piles of white granules a person can tell the salt pile from the sugar pile because the sugar pile is sweet. So much for the easy questions; on to the tougher ones.
What is sweet? Sweet is certainly not sugar, or stevia, or aspartame. It isn’t even a particular configuration of atoms and bonds in sweet molecules. Sweet is a personal experience upon which specific molecules, receptors, neurons, white granules, blueberries, and so on, can be mapped. Likewise, sweet is not sweet in and of itself, despite the fact that it is an entirely private matter. It maps onto other people’s experience, because those other people supervene upon certain, specific molecules, receptors and neurons in the vicinity of one’s own, and therefore in the vicinity of one’s own sweet experiences.
The great mass of interlocking phenomena realizes sweet, as much as anything gets realized.
Not everything in our linguistic pantheon is so lucky.
For instance, instances and their incidentals do not seem to realize moral properties.
We could sweep all the sweet experiences, with their related bits, into a neat pile and happily proclaim, “There is sweet.”
We could not do the same with moral good. There is stuff that won’t go into the dustpan, because moral terms are not simply rooted in our experience, like sweetness. Moral terms have a peculiar, sticky normativity to them which ‘sweetness’, and even terms quite similar to moral terms, such as ‘beautiful’, lack. Really, moralizing resembles sweeping together a pile of definitions for properties much less than it resembles curling.
Curling is a game played with a heavy stone equipped with a handle, a couple of brooms and a large sheet of ice. Teams of several players compete against one another. For each team, one player gives the stone a push across the ice sheet, while two other players frantically sweep the ice to speed or slow the stone’s progress. To win the game, a team’s stone must stop closest to a target painted on the ice.
The above is a description of curling, but it is not curling. Nor is the contents of the International Curling Hall Of Fame*, curling, Nor is the official curling rulebook. What the three intrepid curlers are doing out there on the ice – that is curling. When we say “curling” in reference to the structure of the rules, the stories of all the previous curling games, or a peculiar Canadian tradition, we speak in error.
Likewise with morality, which is not a set of stuff, a structure, or even a category of behavior. It is our most popular game, though according to Hemmingway it might really be a sport, since we play it to the death with alarming frequency. The rules are simple: align intention (as in the ‘aboutness’ of your attention ), truth (the bare contents of your intentional object) and motive (and of course there is but one motive).
When we think, “helping others is good”, the objects of our consideration are not specific actions, consequences, or even values. We can fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, but then we are browsing the Hall of Fame and telling ourselves that it contains the activity. In the Hall, we have the glass case of desired outcomes (good things). There is a spot on the shelf for reciprocal attitudes (the basis of helping). Yet the cases of items are merely tokens of success and failure.
When we set out to help someone, we have a perception of that person in a context with a certain shape and extent. A motive fixes our attention to the perception. Then, we act to reconcile the bare contents of our motive with the bare contents of the related perception. The activity is what we mean by ‘morality’.
For example, I am at the coliseum for some good, clean fun. The lions are just about to do their thing, and I spy little Claudius down front, crying. He is too short to see over the wall. If I am a simple man, disturbed by the child’s distress, I will boost him up to make him happy. If I am a more subtle sort, I will give him some instruction on how to find a better vantage point, so that he never needs another boost. If I am truly enlightened, I will take him out of the coliseum for a snack, because encouraging him to watch lions tearing prisoners apart as entertainment would contradict my impulse to help Claudius in the first place, since such impulses spring from an empathetic instinct.
Each helper can see the efforts of the other helpers as helping. Each sort of help is morally good. But the deeds, outcomes, and judgements are all secondary. The primary thing is an underlying psychological activity. And that is not a thing at all, just like curling.
*I do not know if this place exists, but it should.